History is full of ink. From Paleolithic cave paintings to parchment scrolls to printed books, ink has recorded human history for over 100 millennia. Even the Kindle makes use of e-ink (a reusable ink that sits just below the surface of the screen), reminding its readers that ink is hardly a thing of the past. All inks are a means and method of communication – the first and longest-running form of information technology.
Although historically ubiquitous and seemingly omnipresent, ink is anything but simple. Ever since the Pleistocene, inks of all types have been invented and reinvented, with every ink a product of its own unique context. On a basic material level, inks consist of two components: colour and a way for that colour to attach itself to its intended surface, be it papyrus, parchment or paper. But the way that those elements combine, and the ingredients used to make them, offer a variety of permutations, proving ink to be one of the most curious and complex objects in human history.
Consequently, inks are inexorably bound to their times, geographies and utilities as every type of ink is the result of decisions about purpose, cost, usability and accessibility. Neolithic Chinese ink had different cultural requirements from medieval manuscript ink; printing ink is most certainly different from that found in modern fountain pens. Ritually made ink is culturally sanctioned, whereas other modern inks are intentionally disposable. The value of each ink is seen in the sum of the choices about how it is made and why.